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Legislature creates fund for $14 million public lands lawsuit

First Published      Last Updated Mar 12 2016 01:19 pm

Utah lawmakers approved legislation Thursday to create an account to pay for a $14 million lawsuit asserting state control of tens of millions of acres of federal land.

The account was created so the state could accept donations from individuals and businesses that want to bankroll the lawsuit who, sponsors say, are eager to line up and help pay for the suit.

Republican budget makers voted Wednesday to kick in $4.5 million in state funds for the lawsuit, the first money the state has earmarked for the cause.

The suit would claim Utah, like Eastern states, is entitled to ownership of federal land within the state's borders and demand Congress relinquish control of more than 30 million acres in the state.



The Commission on the Stewardship of Public Lands spent $640,000 to hire a New Orleans law firm to do a legal analysis of the state's case and the lawyers reported back that the state had a case. The firm is now preparing a complaint that could be filed by Attorney General Sean Reyes. The attorney general has yet to commit to the lawsuit.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, a member of the stewardship commission who had asked for the attorney's analysis of the weaknesses of a potential lawsuit, again objected to not receiving that information.

"If we're to do our jobs on a commission and as senators and we're getting ready to spend $14 million, I'm not sure how we're able to do that when we're not given fair and complete access," Dabakis said.

In addition to creating the account, legislators this session are seeking passage of a resolution urging the state to move ahead with the lawsuit and a bill to create a plan for managing any lands the state may ultimately control.

The Senate passed the bill creating the account by a vote of 20-4 and sent it to the governor for a signature or veto.

Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said spending public money on the suit is outrageous.

"The Legislature's decision to set aside millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for its meritless 'Land Grab' lawsuit is simply mind boggling," Bloch said. "There's a reason that Utah is the only state in nation to press ahead with this legal strategy: It will not succeed."

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

 

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